Germany set to tighten shutdown as Covid-19 variants fuel fears

Germany set to tighten shutdown as Covid-19 variants fuel fears
The S-Bahn in Stuttgart on Tuesday. Photo: DPA
Despite numbers easing slightly, Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of Germany's 16 states are expected to extend and tighten lockdown measures beyond January, as fears grow over virus variant strains believed to be more contagious.

Draft measures seen ahead of the emergency talks include prolonging current restrictions until at least mid-February, requiring medical masks on public transport and in shops, and increasing pressure on employers to allow staff to work from home where possible. 

Germany closed restaurants, leisure and sporting facilities in November, then expanded the shutdown in mid-December to include schools and most shops to halt runaway growth in new coronavirus infections.

The measures ordered until the end of January have brought about a “flattening of the infections curve”, said Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert, noting also that the number of patients in intensive care had also fallen slightly.

“This trend is cautiously positive and a success of the restrictions of the last weeks,” he said.

“But it only brings us to the point where we still have a long way to go before we can say we have the infections under control,” he added.

Virus variants first seen in Britain and South Africa also posed major risks to whether the falling infections trend could be sustained, added Seibert.

The crisis talks due to be held on Tuesday afternoon between Merkel and the 16 state premiers were brought forward by a week because of the virus variants.

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“It is a risk that responsible politicians must take into account – sooner rather than later,” he added.

READ ALSO: Will the rest of Germany follow Bavaria's lead in tightening measures?

Work from home call

Germany got out of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic relatively well, but a second wave hit Europe's biggest economy hard.

New infections have soared far above the 50 per 100,000 people incidence rate threshold set by the government. And just last Thursday, the country saw a new high in daily deaths, at 1,244.

Seibert noted that the incidence rate was still at over 130 per 100,000, and that Germany “must more quickly” bring that down to 50.

He would not be drawn on specific measures that could be decided on Tuesday, but said discussions would surround “issues like working from home, medical masks, public transport — not about the complete halt of public transport but about reducing contact in them”.

READ ALSO: Is Germany set to introduce tougher lockdown measures in January?

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier last week issued a joint appeal with union and employer federation representatives, urging firms to have staff work from home “whenever possible”.

More could be done to keep non-essential workers out of the office and off public transport, they said.

Experts have been alarmed by data showing that while a first shutdown in spring last year had led to a sharp drop of 40 percent in mobility, this winter, far more people appear to be on the move.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Bavaria's new FFP2 mask obligation

Disease control agency Robert Koch Institute and Berlin's Humboldt University have found from data collected from mobile phone signals that last Wednesday, the mobility of Germans was only 15 percent below that from a year ago.

RKI chief Lothar Wieler has pleaded for rigorous implementation of curb that have already been ordered, saying that there were too many exceptions being offered.

In northern Germany, authorities were planning to take more drastic measures against people who breach quarantine rules.

Schleswig-Holstein state's justice ministry is turning a youth detention centre into a forced quarantine site for those who do not isolate themselves when required to.

By Hui Min Neo

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